Rewriting a novel, a cry from the midst of chaos

Three and a half years ago, you remember, when we were all younger and more enthusiastic and had more energy, I started writing a sci-fi noir novel for NaNoWriMo. Because of a bad back which turned out to be a slipped disc, I wasn’t carrying my miniature computer with its heavy battery, instead writing longhand in a purple notebook at lunchtimes and on the train. As usual with me and NaNo, the 50,000 word target drifted way past the end of November and it was January before I declared myself finished.

In between all the other stuff, and allowing for the periods where I couldn’t face sitting at a computer (that back thing again) I eventually got the raw first draft typed up. Then I printed it out, wrote on it, crossed things out, split it into chapters and amended the file accordingly. And left it alone for a year.

In the meantime I re-read a couple of how-to-write-novels books and had a long think, and came to the conclusion that I had major flaws, possibly a character that didn’t need to be there, and not enough tension. I also realised that I didn’t know my world, despite the maps I’d drawn at the beginning and the history of the state that I’d dropped in here and there. I sat with a stack of scrap paper and wrote myself a list of questions (140 so far) ranging from the vague ‘What is really going on vs what appears to be going on?’ to the incredibly specific ‘What does Maud’s cafe smell like?’. The latter has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but it felt like something I needed to know.


Even if you can read my writing I don’t think it gives anything away

So I haven’t forgotten you, dear reader. In fact it could be said that I’m doing this for your benefit, as maybe someday some of you will read Sunrise Over Centrified City and you’ll thank me for making a better job of it. Now I must get back to answering such pressing questions as ‘Are all the barges pulled by horses?’ and ‘How old is Greg?’.


Writing is rewriting, some evidence

Instead of doing NaNoWriMo this year (and I bet you’re all glad you’ve been spared the wordcount updates) I decided to edit the novel I was partway through this time last year. Except, as we all know, editing isn’t as much fun as writing. You don’t get the feelgood factor of watching the wordcount build, ticking off the chapter list in your outline or moving closer to that crucial scene. What you do get is self-doubt, the dispiriting task of deleting the only bit of dialogue you were completely happy with (but you’ve changed the plot and it no longer makes sense), and the dreadful feeling of finishing the session with fewer pages than you started out with. Keep going like that and you’ll have nothing left, right? And everyone else manages to get it pretty much spot on first time, right?

Well, just to cheer us up Eddie Robson has written a fabulously useful article on the BBC Writersroom blog, about the various drafts his script for Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully went through before it was recorded (as I write this, there’s a few episodes available on the iplayer – it’s a sitcom about an alien observation of a small village as they try to decide whether to invade. It’s got Peter Davison in). Not only is there an explanation of how he went from one draft to the next, but they’re all available to download so you can study the differences. He also points out all the problems with the scripts as the drafts progress, which is encouraging to say the least – this reminded me of David Almond’s comment at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month that finished books are an illusion to make you think the author has a perfect mind (read my review of his visit here).

Obviously I was in no way procrastinating by reading all of this stuff. The fact that I haven’t done as much editing as planned is just my usual lack of organisation.

Editing: hard work but someone’s got to do it

You may have noticed I keep banging on about the Debut Dagger and my possible entry to it. This is partly because talking (or writing) about doing it is much easier than the bit I should be doing: editing.

We all know editing’s a necessary part of writing, but it’s not always seen as the fun part, the rewarding part. So much more pleasant to rack up that wordcount (look at the popularity of NaNoWriMo) than make anything properly finished out of it. I was seduced by rising wordcount in 2011; in the second half of the year I wrote over 80,000 words of detective novel and believe me, it felt good. I can point to the wordcount graph (what do you expect from someone who used to read Physics World?) with its steep slopes or steady inclines, or I can point to the pile of first draft pages (or I could if I’d printed them all out) and anyone can see what it is I’ve been doing.

Not so in this phase. I spend hours working and either have the same number of words, or less than I started with. I write copious notes about scenes to be slotted in, conversations to be staged between characters, facts that have been lost. But I can’t point to any concrete achievement. The first chapter may be substantially better than when I sat down half an hour ago (such is the plan, anyway) but at a casual glance it looks no different. The synopsis (of which possibly more later) is growing but only agonisingly slowly, and anyway it’s a synopsis, it doesn’t count as writing.

It’s at this point that I need to remind myself (and may as well also remind any fellow writers reading this – think of it as a bargain from the January sales) that this is the crucial bit, the bit that makes the difference between tens of thousands of coherent words on a related subject, and a novel. As I proved last summer and autumn, it’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be, to sit down regularly and gradually amass enough words to fill a couple of hundred paperback pages. Unless you edit ruthlessly, however, it will never be a novel. There is nothing for it but to knuckle down, with only a cup of tea and the faint hope of future pride to keep you going.